Sat June 15, 2013
Marc on the Blues

The Blind Man's Blues

Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and the most iconic name in the Blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson. It makes you wonder why so many blind people have been drawn to a career playing the Blues.

We can speculate about the feelings that might send a blind person that direction, but one important factor is that there was no financial support system for what were then called disabled people in the early 20th century. Life could be pretty difficult for anyone with an infirmity but that problem was greatly amplified if you were African-American.

There were limited jobs available for African-Americans and playing music was far preferable to a life of begging, poverty, and desperation.

I have no doubt that view has validity, but I think a broader view needs to be considered. There has been a high level of discrimination for the so called “disabled” up to the present day and that cuts across ethnic and racial considerations.

Also, the image of the blind musician has been ingrained in many societies around the world for many years. Examples include paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs, the tradition of blind minstrels in Ukraine known as Kobzarstvo, guilds of traveling mostly blind musicians in the 12th through 14th Centuries in Japan known as biwa hoshi, the many blind harpers of Ireland including Turlough O’Carolan, musicians of the Imperial court of China and many more.

When you look around the music world in the 20th and 21st Centuries we see Stevie Wonder, Diane Schuur, Andrea Bocelli, George Shearing, Ray Charles and I’ll spare you dozens more I can think of off the top of my head. Blind musicians are ubiquitous.

And thank heaven for them as they are among the best in many genres.

A recent Blues musician who could have been called “Blind Jeff” was Norman Jeffrey "Jeff" Healey.

Healey was a Canadian Blues guitarist and singer whose life was defined, to a great extent, by cancer. From retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that took his eyes at age 1, to multiple cancers that took his life at age 41, he lived with blindness and cancer all of his life. You could certainly say he lived with the Blues, too.

He started playing guitar and laying the guitar across his lap when he was 3 years old. He formed a bar band doing covers of the usual material when he was 15. Soon after he started hosting a Blues and Jazz radio show, on which he played from his extensive collection of rare 78 RPM records, and stared trio known as the Jeff Healey Band.

His style was often standard AOR Blues-Rock, but when he delved into serious Blues he could crank out guitar work that was stunning. Because of his method of playing his Fender Stratocaster laid across his lap he could make string bends and play hammered notes that seem impossible. It gave his solos an elasticity and flash that few can match.

If you haven’t heard Jeff Healey, you ought to. If you have, you’ll probably want to hear more. Either way you can hear him opening this week’s Nine O’clock Blues.


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